Flowers for the Living.

I ONCE HAD the misfortune of being at a dinner party with a man who was able to bring tears to his own eyes with stories that left his dinner companions singularly unmoved. What brings him to mind is the mawkishness that usually erupts during the Christmas season under the guise of Christmas spirit. We have all been victims of those people with shining eyes and beautific smiles who, outside of the Christmas season, exercise restraint in sharing their innermost, often staggeringly boring, feelings about The Meaning of It All. During the season, however, they appear everywhere, taking us unaware, inflicting cliches so insipid we are left with eyes glazed. Yet they understand instinctively our season-imposed obligation to simulate enthusiasm. Spare me, too, those people who seem positively infused with the Holy Spirit at Christmas, but resemble Robert Vesco the rest of the year.

To put some daylight between yourself and the purveyors of cloying sentimentality, why not reflect on those people who make those quiet contributions to our lives: people of quality, competence and anonymity who are worth celebrating at Christmas and all year round? Drop them a note -“flowers for the living,” as Stanley Marcus would say. Here are three who would be on my list.

In the Age of Overreach, when parents leave little room for children to be kids, Rhea Wolfram helps children focus on their strengths and talents, while everyone else zeroes in on their deficiencies. Her official affiliation is with Greenhill School as director of placement; she is, however, consulted by teen-agers and their parents throughout the city. Her word to a certain college about a student’s character and capability is bankable and often is weighed more heavily than the other measurements on which schools make their selections. Wolfram’s character seems to balance all qualities in the right proportion. She is authoritative without being overbearing, intelligent without being arrogant. Hers is not the gift of alchemists; she will not transform average students into Rhodes Scholars. She does help teen-agers -at one of the most uncertain times in their lives -gain or regain a measure of self-esteem. Her primary tools are seasoned judgment, a generosity of spirit and a determination not to let kids give up on themselves.

REMEMBER being 8 and 9, when you were exploring in the woods, there was always someone up ahead urging you a little further, saying, “Hey, look at this”? Steve Seay must have been that kind of kid. Today, he looks hardly older than the boys of St. Mark’s to whom he teaches science. He has the expression you find sometimes in the faces of people who commit fully to causes other than themselves. The idea or possibility that a student will not find his subject riveting never has the chance to take root. His enthusiasm and interest in his subject are total; he wants his students to share his own amazement, and they do. Steve never just goes through the motions. When he talks about volcanoes, he does so from the perspective of someone who was willing to live in one for three weeks. It wasn’t just around the corner either; the volcano was located in Nyiragongo, Zaire. In his classroom, as in the classrooms of all gifted teachers, students sense a willingness to extend far beyond the usual adversary relationship between teacher and student. This sense creates the rare atmosphere in which learning becomes unforced.

PERFORMANCE that’s sporadic gets our attention. Competence in its highest form will often go unheralded because of its very dependability. For more than a dozen years, Clyde Miller has been responsible for Channel 13’s technical capabilities. He has always worked with what he had -which was practically nothing in the late Sixties. He has been subjected to and has survived the safari-shirted people who called themselves artists. When things went wrong, those self-proclaimed artists never blamed themselves. Clyde and his department were frequently a more convenient scapegoat. Through it all, Clyde built his people and the station’s technical capability. His people always worked the most inconvenient- and the longest – hours. Through all the difficulties that the station has experienced, Clyde has remained the head of operations, getting out the picture, maintaining the equipment that is never quite up-to-date, instilling pride in a group of people that has held together.

Merry Christmas, Mrs. Wolfram, Mr. Seay and Clyde. And thanks.


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